Located in the Himalayas of northern India near the border with Tibet, Ladakh is one of the world’s great destinations for alpine trekking. With the promise of pristine landscapes, stunning vistas and the tranquility of trekking through a land far-removed from the distractions of the modern world, Ladakh is well worth traveling halfway around the world to get there.
While certainly off the beaten path, Ladakh has become a hot destination and is starting to attract lots of international attention—and for good reason. Situated in the heart of the ancient Indus Valley, Ladakh is a crossroads of culture, where elements of Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic culture peacefully co-exist. The bustling town of Leh is a high desert oasis that attracts adventurous trekkers and Buddhist pilgrims alike and makes an enjoyable base to acclimate before hitting the trail. The air is thin and cool, the skies are brilliant blue and snowy peaks beckon in all directions.
We first learned about Ladakh a few years back after completing the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal and wanted to learn more about other trekking destinations in the Himalayas. We’ve been fascinated by the classic hikes of the world for the last few years, so, once we’d discovered Ladakh, it was clear we would have to trek here. And you should, too. Here is the Take a Hike Photography Guide to Ladakh to help plan your own adventure on “the roof of the world”!
There are two options to get to Ladakh during the summer hiking season. By far the fastest and most comfortable is taking a short flight from Delhi to Leh, the largest town in the region. It’s quick and easy, and the views of the Himalayas from the plane will take your breath away.
The downside of flying to Ladakh is the high price of the ticket (generally about $400 US round-trip) and the increased risk of altitude sickness upon arrival. Leh sits at 3524 meters (11,562 feet) and flying there directly from lower elevations can be problematic for some people. If you choose to fly, be prepared to deal with fatigue, headaches and nausea while your body acclimatizes.
The other option involves arriving by land after a long, arduous drive, either from the west via Srinigar in Kashmir, or from the south via the Leh-Manali Highway. Either way, the drive takes two days, with an overnight rest stop near the halfway point.
Those on a super-tight budget or craving added adventure can choose to take a public bus and earn some serious travel cred for the rest of their lives. A far more sane option is to hire a private car or “jeep,” and, even then, you’ll need nerves of steel as you watch your driver negotiate some of the world’s most mind-boggling roads, often, in serious need of repair.
There’s no doubt that winding your way through narrow gorges and up and over 5000+ meter mountain passes allows you to really appreciate the rugged, lunar landscape of the Indian Himalayas while also giving the body a little more time to adjust to the extreme altitudes of the region.
A major drawback, however, is being jostled silly over rutted and potholed gravel roads for two days solid. If you choose to drive, be aware that landslides and a host of other problems could cause the roads to close at any time. Be sure to budget some extra time before starting your trek in case of unexpected delays.
So, to get to Ladakh, you’ll need to pick your poison. Call us crazy, but we couldn’t let the opportunity to get “scattered, smothered and covered” on one of the world’s most infamous roads pass by, so we opted to drive to Ladakh on the Leh-Manali Highway.
We had enough sense to know that we only needed to experience the Leh-Manali Highway once, so we bought a one-way return flight to Delhi. The views of the Himalaya from the road and the plane were mind-blowing. By experiencing it both ways, we felt like we got to have our cake and eat it, too.
With average elevations well above 4000 meters (16,000 feet), altitude sickness is a constant concern while hiking in Ladakh. Unless you live somewhere where you can train at altitude, the best advice is to arrive in the Himalayas in good cardio shape with your legs feeling strong. It is a good idea to go slow and steady on the trail and to take lots of rest breaks. We always tried to time ours for the tops of passes.
Fortunately, dialing it down to a snail’s pace just so happens to be one of our fortes, and wanting to stop often for all the amazing photographic opportunities is a great excuse to catch your breath.
We made sure to drink lots of water on the trail and hot ginger tea in camp. It is also wise to avoid alcohol while on the trail as it tends to dehydrate you; save that for the celebration at the end!
Altitude sickness is no joke. The most important thing is to listen to what your body is telling you. If you feel a headache coming on, drink more water. If it persists you may have to hike to a lower altitude until it goes away. Some hikers take Diamox as a preventative measure; others carry it in case of emergency. Whatever you choose, it is important to recognize that your body does not function the same at high altitude as it does at sea level.
Take Some Time to Acclimatize in Leh
It’s smart to take a few days to acclimatize before hitting the trail. Luckily, there’s plenty to do in and around the charming base town of Leh. We enjoyed wandering around the dusty streets in the Old Town and through the interesting shops in the bazaar. Many shops, restaurants and cafes cater to the abundance of trekkers that flock here in the summer months. The Old Town features the Leh Palace, the Tsemo Fort and the Jama Masjid, the local mosque that bustles with activity around prayer time.
Whenever we travel, Matt always likes to do two things: get his haircut in a local barbershop and try some of the street food. In Leh, we found an especially friendly barber who threw in an awesome head and shoulder massage for a whopping $3! We also sampled lassis, a sweetened drink made from fresh curd, at a local vendor, who supplied cheese and yogurt for most of the restaurants in Leh. Delish!
Leh is home to several important gompas or Buddhist monasteries that are must-see destinations. We enjoyed day trips to beautiful and historic gompas, including Phyang, Spituk, Hemis, Thikse and Shey, where we learned about Buddhist culture and admired the colorful interiors of these sacred spaces.
We were there during the Kalachakra, the Dalai Lama’s annual two-week teach-in, which happened to be in Leh in 2014. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see His Holiness (or Richard Gere), but the gompas were crowded with Buddhist devotees making the pilgrimage and offering alms at each temple.
If you are feeling a little more adventurous, it is possible to hire a car and driver to visit one of the highest motorable passes in the world, Khardung La, at an elevation of 5,359 m (17,582 ft). Be careful! Less than a kilometer from the top we narrowly avoided a small avalanche that dropped a boulder half the size of our car in the middle of the road just moments after we had passed the spot.
After a quick stop at the top where we snapped lots of photos of the funny signage, we headed back down hoping to find the boulder cleared.
We know from previous travels in this type of terrain that the job of repairing the road often falls on those using it. Several drivers were in the process of shoring up the road allowing vehicles to barely skirt past the boulder still planted in the middle of the road.
Fearing for our lives (seriously!), we opted to get out of the car and walk around the boulder. We said a prayer for our driver who skillfully and delicately maneuvered the car to safety.
Choosing a Route
Originally we had planned to do the very popular Markha Valley trek. This 7-10 day trek follows the Markha River to the west of the Stok Range through several villages and crosses at least two high passes. The route allows for a choice of camping or home stays and is the most frequently chosen option in the region, though an intrepid hiker could spend years following different trails in Ladakh without repeat.
We opted to create a custom itinerary that traversed the east side of the Stok Range from south to north. This route, which we called the Stok Traverse, was beautiful, serene, and free of large tour groups. Many nights we were either alone or one of a few, small groups camped at a particular site.
By day, we encountered very few trekkers, so it felt like we had the place to ourselves, though occasionally we would run into shepherds or locals traveling between villages.
The expansive landscapes and far off mountain ranges along with the gentle breezes and sound of rushing water from glacier-fed streams all combined to lend a sense of timelessness and utter tranquility to our trek. It doesn’t hurt that there was absolutely no access to electricity, much less wifi or the outside world.
Our friends Rob and Amy from Colorado joined us for the trek. Together with our guide, Angchuk, our Nepalese cook, Purna, and a small camp crew plus donkeys, we spent 12 days slowly making our way up and down the many high passes and expansive boulder-strewn valleys of the Stok Traverse, taking it all in.
We met Rob and Amy in 2013 after summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, and they were eager to tackle Stok Kangri, a 20,000 + foot summit that is described as requiring no technical mountaineering skills. Although base camp for the ascent was more crowded than the rest of our Stok Traverse, the opportunity to enjoy unparalleled panoramic views of the high Himalayas was a bonus that the Markha Valley trek does not offer.
Ultimately, we spent 12 amazing days appreciating the colorful landscape and rich culture of Ladakh on this lightly-used and challenging route. It would be possible to make this route shorter by eliminating the Stok Kangri summit or the two “rest” days we used for daytrips. You could also extend this trip by combining it with the Markha Valley, our original plan. We had to change our route when I developed an abscessed tooth and needed a quick escape in case my situation worsened.
At first, we were upset. We had come all the way to Ladakh specifically to trek the Markha Valley, but our guide and crew kept telling us how happy they were not to be on that route. When we asked why, they said it had become way too popular, was extremely hot and buggy due to its lower elevations and had more or less the same view each day while traveling in the valley.
We were skeptical at first but changed our minds after we ran into a father/son duo who shared a camp with us. They had come through the Markha Valley and told us about making camp next to a school group of 30+ high school students and their team of 100 donkeys! On our last day, we followed the river out of the park along the same trail that begins the Markha Valley. It was beastly hot and crowded with tons of hikers, guides, donkeys and crew members beginning their Markha Valley trek. What a different experience we had on our route!
Picking a Trekking Style: Camping or Homestays?
We chose a camping trek over homestays for several reasons. We absolutely love being out in nature, so spending our nights under the stars in a tent was a no-brainer. Camping would also give us greater freedom in where we stayed and the opportunity to find some solitude in an area that is becoming increasingly popular with foreign trekkers. Most importantly, not having to stay in villages kept us close to the incredible views we traveled halfway across the world to photograph at optimal times of day.
Night after night, our camps were set up in jaw-dropping locations. This gave us the ability to stroll around at sunrise and sunset in search of great photographs whenever we could muster the energy to do so.
The tents provided by our outfitters were mountaineering-grade, North Face tents designed to handle the extreme cold and high winds of the area.
We were also provided with thick mats to sleep on, which were perfectly fine, but we were definitely kicking ourselves for not bringing our own Thermarest mattresses. They would have been way more comfortable, and the donkeys would have been carrying them from camp to camp, not us. Lesson learned!
Camping is generally more expensive than the homestay option while trekking. On our trip, we had a sizable crew made up of our guide, a cook, two camp assistants, a horseman and donkeys to carry all of our gear and food.
On a typical homestay trek, only a guide is required as hikers carry their own personal gear, stay in private homes in the villages and eat traditional food cooked by their host families. It is possible to hike independently, but we enjoy the safety and the camaraderie that comes with a local guide who often enhances the experience of trekking in a foreign country.
Homestays offer a unique cultural opportunity to meet villagers and observe Ladakhi customs up close. It would have been enjoyable to escape the elements for a night or two to take advantage of this, but we were quite content with our camping arrangement.
It is important to note that homestays are more common on the Markha Valley than on the east side of the Stok Range. So, if the idea of sleeping in tents in extremely cold conditions night after night and not bathing doesn’t sound appealing, it might be best to choose a trek that visits more villages along its route than the Stok Traverse did.
In addition to being jaw-droppingly beautiful, the Ladakhi landscapes we encountered provided some of the most challenging hiking conditions we have ever experienced. Flat stretches were few and far between as we climbed up and over passes above 16,000 feet on a regular basis.
The footing on the dry, dusty trails was often slippery, making the steep descents a nerve-wracking experience. Many times, we traversed high valley walls along narrow, uneven ledges created by sheep and goat herds. Throw in a few tough river crossings, some treacherous snow-covered slopes and plenty of long days on the trail, and we certainly felt like we had upped our hiking game by the end of our trek.
Thank goodness for trekking poles. Don’t even think of doing a trek in Ladakh without them. Rob and Amy may tell you differently, but don’t listen to them. We believe those two were raised by mountain goats and possess abnormal comfort levels on crazy trails that make us mere mortals whimper!
Eating on the Trail
Our outfitter provided a cook for us during our trek. Purna was Nepali and quite good at whipping up multi-course meals in a small kitchen tent in the middle of nowhere. We’re not sure how he did it, but night after night he would surprise with freshly-baked desserts, a real treat when you’re out on the trail.
We had a designated dining tent, which was pleasant to hang out in when the temperatures dropped at night. Breakfasts were often served al fresco (so the crew could break down camp faster) and consisted of some combination of porridge, pancakes, toast, chapati and eggs.
We carried a boxed lunch in our packs with a sandwich, hard-boiled egg, fruit, juice and chocolates. Hot tea and snacks were served as soon as we arrived in camp, and dinners were always multi-course carb fests to keep our energy up on the trail. A typical meal might include: soup, potatoes, rice, curry, vegetables and dessert. We certainly never went hungry despite all the calories we were burning each day!
We occasionally passed parachute tents on the trail. These impromptu tea houses pop up for the summer hiking season and serve beverages and simple meals like ramen and momos to travelers. They provide a rare chance to relax and escape the elements while on a camping trek.
Things to Look For on the Trail
Ladakh is located in the rain shadow of the Himalayas and is extremely dry and arid as a result. While the desert-like conditions prohibit large trees from growing here, it doesn’t mean there is a lack of flora to admire.
Somehow a large variety of colorful, diminutive and delightfully strange plants thrive in the otherwise barren, high elevations of Ladakh. So, don’t let those incredible landscapes distract you from looking down every now and then to see what is underfoot. You just might be standing next to a lovely, little flower that you have never seen before. We certainly wished that we had a guidebook to help us identify the many interesting varietals we came across.
Wild animals are generally few and far between in the dry and arid regions of the northern Himalayas. The prize sighting would be to glimpse the elusive snow leopard. Although we were in the heart of one of the areas of greatest concentration, it would be a lucky day indeed to spot this beautiful cat. Simply put, we did not, but the wildlife photographer in us can always hope, right?
Still, trekking along the Stok Range provided a few opportunities to train the camera lens on some moving targets. Most common were the domesticated variety. We often saw sheep out to pasture, grazing in great herds overlooked by watchful shepherds and the occasional sheep dog.
We periodically wandered past large, lumbering dzo, a yak-cow hybrid common in the Himalayas, as they quietly munched on grass. Goats and donkeys were other frequent sightings.
At base camp below Stok Kangri we were fortunate to spot a sizable herd of endangered blue sheep and observe them wandering quietly through camp and leaping the glacial fed stream.
Marmots love the rocky hiding places of Ladakh’s arid terrain and dig burrows in which they hibernate during the cold months of winter. We had several excellent and unusual marmot encounters on our trek. See our post on Marmot Mania for more!
Although not teeming with birds, we were occasionally entertained by the appearance of white-capped redstarts, beautifully-marked snow cocks and the fire-fronted serin.
There is also plenty of Buddhist culture to observe in the mountains. We occasionally strolled through villages where we saw rustic, white-washed chortens (or stupas) welcoming our arrival.
On the trail, colorful prayer flags were an encouraging sign that we had finally reached the top of a difficult pass. We often passed small cairns and mani walls with their stone-carved inscriptions in Sanskrit of the mantra, “Om mani padme hum.” In keeping with Buddhist custom, our guide, Angchuk, always made sure to lead us past them on the left side.
Near the villages, we caught glimpses of men tending their massive flocks of sheep and women working in the fields.
July and August are great months for trekking in Ladakh. The average day time temperature reaches into the mid-70s, although it can get windy especially at the passes. Most days we experienced fairly sunny, blue skies and occasional clouds. Once the sun goes down, however, it can get chilly in a hurry.
It was always cold when we started hiking in the mornings. We would hit the trail wearing our lightweight down jackets, hats and gloves, but we often shed those layers (sometimes down to shorts) after a few hours of hiking. Of course, we were very conscious of the need for sun protection. Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen are a must at these extreme altitudes!
In camp, we appreciated changing into long underwear and fleece pants and having a 3-season down sleeping bag with a liner to cozy up in at night. Although it never rained, our windbreakers and rain pants came in handy as an extra layer both at the passes and in especially cold camps.
Now, It’s Your Turn!
So, there you have it—everything you need to plan an amazing trek in incredible Ladakh. If you have any questions be sure to let us know with a comment. Do you think you might visit Ladakh sometime in the future? If you do, you will have us jumping for joy!